Jess sat very still. She looked at the newspaper, then back at him, until he realized what he had called her, and she could see him colouring, hoping she wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. So she swallowed and then she wiped both her eyes with the heels of her palms and stared at her plate for a minute before she began eating again. ‘Right,’ she said, her voice strangled. ‘Well. That’s good news. Very good news.’
‘Do you really think things can change?’ Tanzie’s eyes were big and dark and wary.
Jess put down her knife and fork. ‘I think I do, love. I mean, we all have our down moments. But, yes, I do.’
And Tanzie looked at Nicky and back at Jess, and then she carried on eating.
Life went on. Jess walked to the Feathers on a Saturday lunchtime, hiding her limp for the last twenty yards, and pleaded for her job back. Des told her he’d taken on a girl from the City of Paris. ‘Not the actual city of Paris. That would be uneconomical.’
‘Can she take apart the pumps when they go wrong?’ Jess said. ‘Will she fix the cistern in the men’s loos?’
Des leant on the bar. ‘Probably not, Jess.’ He ran a chubby hand through his mullet. ‘But I need someone reliable. You’re not reliable.’
‘Give me a break, Des. One missed week in two years. Please. I need this. I really need this.’
He said he’d think about it.
The children went back to school. Tanzie wanted Jess there to pick her up every afternoon. Nicky got up without her having to go in six times to wake him. He was actually eating breakfast when she got out of the shower. He didn’t ask to renew his prescription of anti-anxiety medication. The flick on his eyeliner was point perfect.
‘I was thinking. I might want to do sixth form at McArthur’s after all. And then, you know, I’ll be around when Tanzie starts big school.’
Jess blinked. ‘That’s a great idea.’
She cleaned alongside Nathalie, listening to her gossip about the final days of the Fishers – how they had pulled every plug socket off the walls, and kicked holes in the plaster in the kitchen before they’d left the house on Pleasant View. Someone – she pulled a face – had set fire to a mattress outside the housing-association office on Sunday night.
‘You must feel relieved, though, eh?’ she said.
‘Sure,’ Jess said.
Nathalie straightened and rubbed her back. ‘I meant to ask you. What was it like going all the way to Scotland with Mr Nicholls? It must have been weird.’
Jess leant over the sink, and paused, gazing out of the window at the infinite crescent of the sea. ‘It was fine.’
‘Didn’t you run out of things to say to him, stuck in that car? I know I would.’
Jess’s eyes prickled with tears so that she had to pretend to be scrubbing at an invisible mark on the stainless steel. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Funnily enough. I didn’t.’
Here was the thing: Jess felt the absence of Ed like a thick blanket, smothering everything. She missed his smile, his lips, his skin, the bit where a trace of soft dark hair snaked up towards his belly button. She missed feeling like she had when he was there, that she was somehow more attractive, more sexy, more everything. She missed feeling as if anything was possible. She couldn’t believe losing someone you had known such a short time could feel like losing part of yourself, that it could make food taste wrong and colours seem dull. Some nights after Nicky went to bed she didn’t go into her too-big bed, but just dozed on the sofa in front of the television, her knees pressed into her chest to try to stop the empty feeling inside.
Jess saw now that when Marty had left, everything she had felt had been related to practical matters. She had felt unsafe. She had worried about how the children would feel with him gone. She had worried about money, about who would mind them if she had to do an evening shift at the pub, about who would take the bins out on a Thursday. But what she mostly felt was a vague relief that she was no longer governed by his moods. That she didn’t have to act as referee between him and the children. That she no longer had to try to convince herself that this was a relationship worth saving.
More than anything she hated the fact that a man who had seen only the best of her now thought the worst. To Ed she was now no better than any of the other people who had let him down or messed him up. In fact, she was probably worse. And it was all her own fault. That was the thing she could never escape from. It was entirely her own fault.
She thought about it for three nights, then she wrote him a letter.
So, in one ill-thought-out minute, I became the person I have always taught my children not to be. We are all tested eventually, and I failed.
I miss you.
PS I know you’ll never believe me. But I was always going to pay it back.
She put her phone number on it and twenty pounds in an envelope, marked First Instalment. And she gave it to Nathalie and asked her to put it with his post at Beachfront Reception. The next day, Nathalie said a for-sale sign had gone up outside number two. And she watched her reaction just slightly too closely and then she stopped asking questions about Mr Nicholls.
When five days had gone by and Jess realized he wasn’t going to respond, she spent an entire night awake, and then she told herself firmly that she could lie around feeling miserable no longer. It was time to move on. Heartbreak was a luxury too costly for the single parent.
On Monday she made herself a cup of tea, sat down at the kitchen table and called the credit-card company; she was told that she needed to up her minimum monthly payment. She opened a letter from the police who said that she would be fined a thousand pounds for driving without tax and insurance and that if she wanted to appeal against the penalty she should apply for a court hearing in the following ways. She opened the letter from the pound, which said she owed a hundred and twenty pounds up to the previous Thursday for the safekeeping of the Rolls. She opened the first bill from the vet and shoved it back in the envelope. There was only so much news you could digest in one day. She got a text from Marty, who wanted to know if he could come and see the kids at half-term.
‘What do you think?’ she said to them, over breakfast.
After her cleaning shift on Tuesday she walked into town to the low-cost solicitors and paid them twenty-five pounds to draft a letter to Marty asking for a divorce, and for back payments in child support.
‘How long?’ the woman asked.
She didn’t even look up. Jess wondered what kinds of stories she heard every day. She tapped in some figures, then turned the screen to Jess’s side of the desk. ‘That’s what it comes to. Quite a sum. He’ll ask to pay in instalments. They usually do.’
‘Fine.’ Jess reached for her bag. ‘He has someone to help him.’
She worked her way methodically through the list of things she needed to sort out, and she tried to see a bigger picture beyond that small town. Beyond a little family with financial problems, and a brief love story that had snapped in two before it had really begun. Sometimes, she told herself, life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through a sheer act of will. She walked the length of her seaside town and she vowed that she would hide the full extent of her financial worries from the two of them. It was important that they were allowed to hope, to dream, even if she no longer would. If she could give them nothing else she could give them that. She stared out at the muddy blue of the endless sea, gulped in the air, lifted her chin and decided that she could survive this. She could survive most things. It was nobody’s right to be happy, after all.
Jess walked along the pebbly beach, her feet sinking, stepping over the groynes, and counted her blessings on three fingers, as if she was playing a piano in her pocket: Tanzie was safe. Nicky was safe. Norman was getting better. That was what it all boiled down to, in the end, wasn’t it? The rest was just detail.
If she said it often enough she might start believing it.
Two evenings later, they sat in the garden on the old plastic furniture. Tanzie had washed her hair and was on Jess’s lap while Jess tugged the comb through the wet tangles. She told them why Mr Nicholls wouldn’t be coming back.
Nicky stared at her. ‘From his pocket?’
‘No. It had fallen out of his pocket. It was in a taxi. But I knew whose it was.’
There was a shocked silence. Jess couldn’t see Tanzie’s face. She wasn’t sure she wanted to look at Nicky’s. She kept combing gently, smoothing her daughter’s hair, her voice calm and reasonable, as if that might bring reason to what she had done.
‘What did you do with the money?’ Tanzie’s head had become unusually still.
Jess swallowed. ‘I can’t remember now.’
‘Did you use it for my registration?’
She kept combing. Smooth and comb. Tug, tug, release. ‘I honestly can’t remember, Tanzie. Anyway, what I did with it is irrelevant.’
Jess could feel Nicky’s eyes on her the whole time she spoke.
‘So why are you telling us now?’
Tug, smooth, release.
‘Because … because I want you to know that I made a terrible mistake and I’m sorry. Even if I planned to pay it back I should never have taken that money. There was no excuse for it. And Ed – Mr Nicholls was well within his rights to leave when he found out because, well, the most important thing you have with another human being is trust.’ She tried to keep her voice measured and unemotional. It was becoming harder. ‘So, I want you to know that I’m sorry I let you both down. I’m conscious that I’ve always told you how to behave, and then I did the complete opposite. I’m telling you because not telling you would make me a hypocrite. But I’m also telling you because I want you to see that doing the wrong thing has a consequence. In my case I lost someone I cared about. Very much.’
They were both silent.
After a minute, Tanzie reached a hand round. Her fingers sought Jess’s, and closed briefly around them. ‘It’s okay, Mum,’ she said. ‘We all make mistakes.’
Jess closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, Nicky lifted his head. He looked genuinely bemused. ‘He would have given it to you,’ he said, and there was a faint, but unmistakable trace of anger in his voice.
Jess stared at him.
‘He would have given it to you. If you’d asked.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and her hands stilled on Tanzie’s hair. ‘Yes, that’s the worst bit. I think he probably would have done.’
A week went by. They caught the bus to see Norman every day. The vet had sewn up his eye socket where the eye had had to be taken out; there wasn’t an actual hole but it still looked pretty grim. The first time Tanzie saw his face she burst into tears. They said he might bump into things for a while once he was up and about. They said he would spend a lot of time sleeping. Nicky didn’t like to tell them he wasn’t sure anyone would be able to tell the difference. Jess stroked his head and told him he was a wonderful brave boy, and when his tail thumped gently on the tiled floor of his veterinary pen she blinked a lot and turned away.
On the Friday Jess asked Nicky to wait in Reception with Tanzie and she walked over to the front desk to speak to the woman about the bill. He guessed it was about the bill. They printed out a sheet of paper, then a second sheet, then, incredibly, a third, and she ran her finger the whole way down each page and swallowed visibly when it reached the bottom. They had walked home that day, even though Jess was still limping.
The town started to get busier, as the sea turned from mucky grey to glinting blue. It felt weird at first, the Fishers being gone. It was as if no one could actually believe it. Someone said that they’d gone to Sussex, not Surrey. Someone else said that Fisher’s dad had been arrested for aggravated assault in Northampton. Nobody’s tyres got slashed. Mrs Worboys started to walk to bingo in the evenings again. Nicky got used to being able to walk to the shop and back and realized that the butterflies he still felt in his stomach didn’t have to be there. He told them this repeatedly, but they refused to get the message. Tanzie didn’t come outside at all unless Jess was with her.
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